New awakening: Today's congregations call yesterday's sanctuaries home

Michael Matassa of Groton worships with fellow congregants as gospel music plays during an Engaging Heaven Church service Nov. 9 at the former First Congregational Church at State and Union streets in New London. Another worshipper, a woman, lies on the ground to prostrate herself to the Lord.
Michael Matassa of Groton worships with fellow congregants as gospel music plays during an Engaging Heaven Church service Nov. 9 at the former First Congregational Church at State and Union streets in New London. Another worshipper, a woman, lies on the ground to prostrate herself to the Lord.

New London - A van with a "Jesus (heart) New London" bumper sticker is parked outside Calvary Chapel on Alger Street most days.

Calvary, which took in the dwindling membership of the former Montauk Avenue Baptist Church after a merger about two years ago, is one of the city's new Christian churches. They have popped up in storefronts and school gyms, and in a few cases new congregations occupy the old, stone, steepled churches where hundreds once attended weekly services. When membership rolls at those old, mainline houses of worship shrank to as low as a few dozen, the faithful decided to give up their longtime sanctuaries.

But while some settings today may be familiar, the services may not.

Thirty-year-old Dana Johnson is the venue pastor at Sunday Night Vibe at Calvary Chapel, where little, including Johnson's Mohawk hairstyle, resembles a traditional church service.

In late October, Milford rapper Friistyle Gahspol visited the church, and had the crowd of about 70 on its feet, clapping and moving to his spoken word/rap renditions of the Bible.

"I'm excited about God tonight," said Gahspol, who was wearing a clerical collar, jeans, sneakers and a cap on backwards.

Later, Pastor Joe Paskewich led a Bible study of 1 John 2:18, and the crowd of mostly young people was just as rapt as when the Christian rapper performed.

Johnson said Sunday Night Vibe is open to everyone but is geared to young adults and teenagers and is designed to reflect the urban complexion of New London.

It does indeed seem that "Jesus (heart) New London." Recent developments include:

• Engaging Heaven Church, described by Pastor James Levesque as "more charismatic, nondenominational," started with five members in a Masonic Street storefront 4½ years ago and is now buying the towering First Congregational Church at State and Union streets. First Congregational, which dates back to before the Revolutionary War and erected its stately downtown building in 1850, has been losing members since the 1950s and averages just 25 to 30 people at Sunday worship services, according to its pastor, the Rev. Catherine Zall.

• Up the street, the First Baptist Church at 268 State St. has merged with the First Hispanic Baptist Church of New London, and the combined congregation has changed its name to Church of the City. The two merged in September 2013 and not long afterward, Church of the City acquired the former Bank of America building next door, to expand its ministries.

• Just outside the city's downtown business district, the Second Congregational Church vacated its 1870 "legacy building" at Broad and Huntington streets 17 months ago and gave it to the Miracle Temple Church. Second Congregational was down to about 50 active members in the spring of 2013 when they voted to move to Waterford to share space with Crossroads Presbyterian Church.

According to Second Congregational's account of the conveyance, Miracle Temple Pastor Larry DeLong, with a burgeoning congregation that had outgrown its Bank Street location, called the property transfer "a gift from God."

• Three years ago, the former congregants of Montauk Avenue Baptist sold their red brick, circa-1915 building at 236 Montauk Ave. to Igreja Evangelica Avivanmento Da Fe Inc., a Brazilian faith group. The new owners agreed to allow Calvary Chapel, which blended with Montauk Avenue Baptist, to share the space for 15 years. The Brazilian church holds services on Tuesdays, Thursdays and sometimes Saturdays, and the Calvary Chapel, Sunday morning and evening.

• In the south end of the city, Church ONEighty meets every Sunday in the gymnatorium of the Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School. Pastor Jeff Graves held his New London church - "a daughter church" of Seaport Community Church in Groton - once a month in early summer before launching every-Sunday services in late October.

The plan, Graves said, is eventually to find a permanent location in New London.

He described Church ONEighty as "a Christian church, affiliated with Assemblies of God, and evangelical in nature," and already 75 or more people are attending his weekly services at Nathan Hale, some of them local, and others coming from outside the city.

"I'm in New London because I have a heart for the city and believe there are greater days ahead," said Graves, who moved his young family here about two years ago.

"New churches attract new people, and we want to serve the community and bring people into a relationship with Jesus Christ," he said, adding, "We want to be able to connect with people who are unchurched or dechurched."

'Too busy' for church

Eugene V. Gallagher, a religious studies professor at Connecticut College since 1978, said religion is dynamic and always in a state of flux. He pointed to societal changes as one reason.

"I think in my lifetime, when folks my age look back, one of the most dramatic moments is going to be this sea change of approval for same-sex marriage," he said. "And if that is the milieu in which you live, and your religious organization is telling you repeatedly how wrong that is, it is hard to live with that kind of dissonance."

According to 2013 survey data from the Pew Research Center, roughly three in 10 adults in America, or 29 percent, acknowledge they seldom or never attend worship services, except for weddings and funerals. And, while 37 percent of respondents said they attend services at least once a week, another Pew study showed many of those who describe themselves as religious admit to being "too busy" to attend church regularly.

About four in 10 of those self-described religiously affiliated respondents said they don't attend because of disagreements with the beliefs of their religion or church leaders, or because they view church attendance as unimportant.

Zall, the pastor of First Congregational, attributed the drop in participation at mainline churches to the fact that church-going is not fashionable these days.

"In the 1950s, we lived in a country where going to church was the norm," she said. "I don't think necessarily that people had any more faith or any more passion about spirituality, it was just something you did. Going to church was part of American culture, and over time that has changed, and many other things have changed. Obviously, the society we live in in 2014 looks very different than the society we lived in in 1950."

And mainline churches have not kept up with the times, Zall said.

"There are hundreds of statistics about declining church attendance. This hasn't just started the last five years," she said. "But I think those of us in the church are kind of lagging behind the change that's already happened."

Gallagher believes New London is seeing increased church activity, at least in part, because the city's population is so transient.

"When people are on the move, they're looking for anchors, and church is a traditional anchor," he said.

Accessibility niche

The new Christian churches have found their place with less stringent, more accommodating styles than the traditional liturgies of older denominations.

They've embraced technology - live-streaming services, projecting Bible verses and song lyrics on oversized screens, and collecting donations at eGiving stations or kiosks in the back of the church where the faithful may swipe credit or debit cards.

They've replaced pipe organs with five- and six-piece bands, and traditional hymns with contemporary gospel. Full-service child care is offered, as well as coffee, doughnuts, apple crisp and even tacos at one service.

Congregants at these new churches are not homogenized. A glimpse across the pews reveals people of all ages, races and socioeconomic groups worshipping together.

The pastors dress in blue jeans, jean jackets or Polo Ralph Lauren shirts - whatever makes them comfortable - and share their personal stories as well as liturgical missives.

"The message hasn't changed in 2,000 years, but delivery of the message has changed," Pastor Paskewich said.

Chris Johnson, a 32-year-old Navy sailor, has been attending Engaging Heaven since 2010 when it was located in the Masonic Street storefront.

"I never got anything out of traditional church," he said. "My dad was always nudging me to stay awake."

But when he returned from an extended deployment and his wife was attending Engaging Heaven, Johnson decided to give it a try.

"(There) was just something about it that was so spiritual," he said. "Something sort of spoke to me. I just sort of connected with it. It was so different from what I was used to."

Johnson is now attending Christian leadership school and said he has "put his relationship with Jesus in front of a lot of other things."

Jerry Medina, who attends Sunday Night Vibe at Calvary Chapel's Montauk Avenue site, said the service is the right fit for him.

"It's just a different environment. When you walk in there, it feels different. No one is judged there," said the 22-year-old who works as an instructional assistant at the Friendship School.

Services offer a contrast

While pastors of the city's new churches all described them as Christian, they said every spiritual community has its own flavor.

"It's like restaurants," Paskewich said, "they're all different."

Calvary offers eight services at its Uncasville and New London sites every weekend and each is geared to a different group of worshippers. There are traditional, contemporary and modern services, Paskewich said, including the raw and urban Sunday Night Vibe. Services are also live-streamed.

The contrast in services is perhaps most notable at First Congregational, where about two dozen First Congregational members attended a recent traditional liturgy and, not long afterwards, the sanctuary was occupied by about 80 much more spiritually demonstrative Engaging Heaven members.

While the Congregationalists stood for prayers and sang more customary church hymns, worshippers at the Engaging Heaven service raised their hands in the air and danced in the aisles. Some had lain prostrate on the cold church floor.

Zall said she prefers her style of worship but has great respect for what other churches are doing.

"I think we are in a period of transition, and I'm not sure I will live long enough to see the end of this transition," she said. "The kinds of worship that made sense 50 years ago - people have changed and are looking for something different.

"For me, I celebrate that difference because the kind of worship we do here is deeply meaningful to me and deeply meaningful to many people, but a lot of people are looking for a different kind of worship - more contemporary, more expressive maybe, more flexible."

Today, spirituality is evolving and offers all kinds of choices, she said.

"There are a lot of different things that people are trying to do to say, 'OK, what we had been doing isn't connecting with people, and God is still as real today as God was 100 or 1,000 years ago, so how can we better connect to the reality given the kind of culture we now live in?'

"So I think what we are seeing is a lot of experiments," she said, "and some will flourish and some will die out."

a.baldelli@theday.com

Twitter: @annbaldelli

Pastor Jeff Graves of Church ONEighty, which started weekly services in the gymnatorium at the Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School off Ocean Avenue, on Oct. 19, 2014.
Pastor Jeff Graves of Church ONEighty, which started weekly services in the gymnatorium at the Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School off Ocean Avenue, on Oct. 19, 2014.
A parishioner prays at Pastor James Levesque's Engaging Heaven Church at the former First Congregational Church at State and Union streets in New London on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014.
A parishioner prays at Pastor James Levesque's Engaging Heaven Church at the former First Congregational Church at State and Union streets in New London on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014.
Justin Shepperd, left, 26, of Ledyard, is on his knees with his hands raised, at a worship service at Church ONEighty in the gymnatorium of the Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School on Oct. 19, 2014. Pastor  Jeff Graves said Church ONEighty is 'a daughter church' of Seaport Community Church in Groton and started every-Sunday services at Nathan Hale on Oct.19. Shepperd said he was searching for a church after recently relocating to the area from California.
Justin Shepperd, left, 26, of Ledyard, is on his knees with his hands raised, at a worship service at Church ONEighty in the gymnatorium of the Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School on Oct. 19, 2014. Pastor Jeff Graves said Church ONEighty is "a daughter church" of Seaport Community Church in Groton and started every-Sunday services at Nathan Hale on Oct.19. Shepperd said he was searching for a church after recently relocating to the area from California.
Worship Pastor Sara Nicolls of the Engaging Heaven Church in New London cries while performing as the lead vocalist/keyboards, during a service at the New London church on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014. Nicolls lives in New London.
Worship Pastor Sara Nicolls of the Engaging Heaven Church in New London cries while performing as the lead vocalist/keyboards, during a service at the New London church on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014. Nicolls lives in New London.
Michael Matassa of Groton, worshipping at the charasmatic Engaging Heaven Church in New London, responds to gospel music performed by the church band at Sunday services on Nov. 9, 2014. Engaging Heaven is located in the former First Congregational Church at State and Union streets.
Michael Matassa of Groton, worshipping at the charasmatic Engaging Heaven Church in New London, responds to gospel music performed by the church band at Sunday services on Nov. 9, 2014. Engaging Heaven is located in the former First Congregational Church at State and Union streets.

City churches

According to the New London Assessor's Office, there are 78 church or religious properties in the city, including churches, parking lots, rectories, other clerical housing, educational or child care facilities, offices, cemeteries, a thrift store and a bathhouse, of which 76 pay no taxes. If that real estate was taxed, the city would collect an additional $1,791,599.

NEW AWAKENING
Coming Monday

Engaging Heaven's James Levesque and Calvary Chapel's Joe Paskewich took nontraditional roads to the pulpit.

For Beloved Grace Carter, who “turned everything over to God” after a divorce left her “broken, hurt and shocked,” Engaging Heaven was the spiritual home she sought.

Coming Tuesday
By merging, First Baptist Church and first Hispanic Baptist Church set out to “be diverse racially, culturally, and economically, in age and gender and by languages we use in ministry.”

Coming Wednesday
When the Second Congregational Church gave away its historic building, Miracle Temple members saw it as “a gift from God.”

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